City Life | Education

Brown University in the Third Dimension

Brown's new 3D facility offers endless opportunities across multiple disciplines.


The future of virtual reality has arrived in Providence with Brown’s groundbreaking new facility, the YURT (YURT Ultimate Reality Theatre). An oval shaped room equipped with 69 high resolution projectors, it promises to create an immersive 3-D virtual reality experience unlike any other.

David Laidlaw, computer science professor at Brown and leader of the team behind the YURT, explains that a primary use of the facility is to gain a better understanding of visual characteristics. By experimenting with different resolutions and pixels, and observing the noticeable changes in visual perception, we can learn more about these different visual capabilities and their discernable points of difference. Laidlaw is hopeful that this new $2.5 million facility will help scientists working within a multitude of fields to accelerate the work they’re doing, and move beyond into possibilities they hadn’t previously considered. “I’m really excited to get people in there doing real research, teaching, finding uses for this kind of technology, creating their own applications and coming back and using them,” he says.

Jesse Polhemus, Communications Outreach Specialist for Brown’s Computer Science Department, expands on this applied versatility. “The past decades have shown visualization to be an invaluable aid to art, science and so many other disciplines,” he explains, “and the YURT is a world-class visualization tool.” In the past, Brown has made great strides in a number of fields using their previous visualization facility, CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment), so the plan is for the YURT to be used in classes across many departments, not just computer science. For example, geology professor Jim Head hopes to use the technology of the YURT for his Planetary Geology class in order to virtually place students in Antarctica in preparation for field missions there, as Antarctica is the place on Earth most similar to the surface of the moon. There are also applications for archaeologists using 3D technology to look at the different pieces found during a dig, effectively mapping things spatially to experience the artifacts in the environment where they were found.

The YURT is opening amazing opportunities for collaboration across different departments and fields, with professors in math, biology and literary arts rolling out plans for the facility, as well. Professors Laidlaw and Fritz Drury of RISD are co-teaching a course called Virtual Reality Design for Science, which will bring together illustration and computer science at the YURT.

For those involved with the YURT, what’s even more exciting is the future: it’s wide open. At the YURT, the possibilities for discovery and innovation are limitless. “Personally, I’m inspired by the vision and hard work of the YURT’s founders and the people who are bringing it to the world,” continues Polhemus. “Its best uses have yet to be found, and to create something with so few parallels, with so much possibility ahead of it, is an act of incredible daring, curiosity and insight.”